International press freedom groups, labor unions and rights groups are calling for the release of three editors of a labor rights website detained by authorities in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong.
The Paris-based press freedom group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) called this week for the immediate release of editor-in-chief Yang Zhengjun and his colleagues Wei Zhili and Ke Chengbing, all of whom worked for the Xinshengdai (New Generation) website at www.ilabour.net.
Yang was detained in the provincial capital Guangzhou in January, while Wei and Ke were detained on March 20.
All three had criticized life-threatening working conditions in some Chinese factories, via their website which focused on news affecting China’s tens of millions of internal migrant workers.
“There are absolutely no grounds for their detention,” RSF’s East Asia bureau chief Cédric Alviani said in a statement on the group’s website. “Investigating factory safety is not a crime, but on the contrary an important contribution for the Chinese public’s access to information.”
In Hong Kong, around 20 representatives of labor groups in the city staged a protest outside the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s representative office on Wednesday to call for the release of dozens of labor activists by the Chinese government.
Chung Chung-fai, vice-chairperson of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU) called on Beijing “to release all detained labor activists, withdraw charges against them, halt repression against them and revise its legislation to be in line with international standards and international labour conventions, especially regarding freedom of association,” the group said.
Meanwhile, the London-based rights group Amnesty International said Wei could be at risk of torture.
“Wei … was taken away by police officers from his home in Shenzhen,” the group said in statement on its website. “No direct contact has been made with him since his arrest and, without access to a lawyer of his choice, he is at risk of torture and other ill-treatment,” it said.
Wei’s wife, the prominent feminist writer Zheng Churan, said on Wednesday that she has been unable to confirm her husband’s location so far, but that she believes he is being held in the Shenzhen No. 2 Detention Center.
Repeated calls to the Shenzhen No. 2 Detention Center rang unanswered during office hours on Thursday.
Assistance to migrants
A Guangdong-based rights activist who asked to remain anonymous said Wei and his coworkers were likely detained because of their advocacy on behalf of migrant workers suffering from pneumoconiosis, or black lung disease, and their attempts to win compensation.
“I think this is likely to do with the assistance they gave to the migrant workers from Hunan who are suffering from pneumoconiosis,” the activist said. “Several hundred pneumoconiosis sufferers from Hunan launched a complaint last November in Shenzhen.”
“Their treatment hadn’t worked, and they had spent a lot of money on it,” he said. “If each person was awarded 100,000 yuan (U.S. $14,840), that would be 30 million yuan (U.S. $4.5 million) in total, so that’s why the Shenzhen authorities detained [the editors] in a hurry.”
Steven Butler, Asia program coordinator for the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said in a recent statement: “The arrest of Wei Zhili is just the latest example of how frightened China’s leadership is of journalists who expose the truth about labor conditions in China.”
“Wei and his colleagues should be released and hailed as heroes for covering the laboring class, which China’s communist leaders have abandoned,” he said.
The three editors’ detentions come amid an ever-widening crackdown on grassroots labor movements in Chinese factories.
Activists have called for the release of more than 40 former workers at the Jasic Technology factory in Guangdong province and members of the Jasic Workers’ Solidarity Group (JWSG), who were supporting them.
At least 44 labor activists, students, and recent graduates of China’s top universities have been “disappeared” or criminally detained since the nationwide crackdown on the Jasic labor movement, which started in July and continued with further waves of arrests and detentions in August, September, November, and January, the JWSG reported on its Github page.
Among the “disappeared” are Sun Yat-sen University graduate and Jasic movement spokeswoman Shen Mengyu and Peking University #MeToo campaigner Yue Xin.
Shang Kai—a former editor for the Maoist website Red Reference who was supporting the Jasic campaign—was released on “bail” under conditions preventing him from appearing in public.
China holds the highest number of journalists in prison, with at least 60 currently behind bars, according to RSF. The country ranked 176 out of 180 in the 2018 RSF World Press Freedom Index. (RFA)